WASHINGTON -- Congress raised its own pay yesterday -- for the second time in three years -- with barely a whisper of protest over the once-controversial issue.
On a 54-38 vote, the Senate approved a $28 billion spending measure that also raises the salary of the next president to $400,000, double the annual pay earned by every chief executive since Richard Nixon.
Federal workers would get a 4.8 percent pay increase under the legislation, which won a final vote from the House on Wednesday and is now headed to President Clinton for his likely signature.
No mention was included in the bill of the 3.4 percent pay increase for members of Congress, which would give them a $4,600 boost -- to $141,300.
Congressional pay goes up automatically unless Congress acts to block the increase, which it has done in five of the past eight years.
"I don't think it's a big issue with the voters like it once was," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican, who shepherded the bill through the Senate, "because the economy is good, and everybody knows there's a 4.8 percent raise for federal employees.
"You've got to pay more if want to get good people. Senators could make a lot more on the outside."
Similar arguments have been made in the past, but the public didn't always buy them.
In 1989, after a long period in which congressional pay remained basically unchanged, an outside commission recommended a 51 percent raise. But Congress was forced to abandon the idea after it stoked outrage across the nation.
"The commission, just by making a recommendation, perks up the media," Campbell said. " They think elected officials ought to work for nothing."
In 1991, when Congress accepted a 30 percent pay increase and banned most outside earnings, the system was changed. It now provides for automatic, annual pay boosts tied to, but slightly less than, the increases in pay for private business executives.
Even so, lawmakers have had to forgo most of these pay increases in the face of objections from younger and conservative members of Congress.
Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who led fights against the pay raise in both the House and the Senate, said that because of the federal budget deficit "the last symbol we should send out to people is that we're voting ourselves a pay increase."
But he didn't even raise the subject this year. "The issue is very personal, very difficult. I didn't think we could get the votes," he said.
One reason for the lack of opposition inside Congress was an alliance between leaders of both parties, who worked hard to keep the issue quiet.
In the House, Republican Whip Tom DeLay, a conservative Texan, joined forces with Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a moderate Democrat from Southern Maryland.
"I think what the public hates is when members of Congress demagogue against the pay raise and then take it," Hoyer said. He and DeLay "were willing to stand up and say, 'We're for it.' "
"We did allow a vote," Hoyer said. "It was procedural, but everybody knew what it meant. I wanted a vote."
The House vote to reject the pay raise failed, 276-147. The Senate never discussed it.
The presidential pay raise drew some opposition in the House from members who argued that the chief executive gets valuable perks, such as the White House and free travel aboard Air Force One. But Hoyer argued that presidents also need cash.
Without a raise the next president would soon be making less than other federal officials, Supreme Court justices and congressional leaders, who now receive $175,000 a year.
Also getting pay raises in January would be the vice president, Cabinet secretaries and 1,300 other top-level executive branch officials. By law, they get the same increases as Congress.